Our Trip to Brussels

The EU Studies trip to Brussels, Belgium consisted of both relaxation and once in a lifetime experiences. I ate a lot of good food, had my fair share of Belgian chocolates and craft beer, and strengthened friendships that are sure to last longer than this semester. If it wasn’t for CEPA, I wouldn’t have made it to Brussels. If I didn’t travel to Brussels, I would have missed out on a lot.

My first long trip of the semester was organized by CEPA, which took my group to Brussels during the École de Management’s winter break. While Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Parliament and considered to be a central point of the European Union, Brussels is where the majority of the action takes place. From some of the major bodies of the European Union to the plethora of consulates and embassies to being home to NATO headquarters, the multicultural qualities of Brussels are evident in the institutions it houses as well as the people that fill its streets. Brussels, however, was not the first stop on our trip as we first were given a tour of Verdun, France, a pivotal city that is home to one of the greatest battles during World War I. Unfortunately the weather was not in our favor that day. Our tour guide adapted to the circumstances and worked a little magic to allow us to go on an interactive tour through The Citadel of Verdun in order to make up for some lost sites due to renovations.

Aside from The Citadel, we walked through Fort de Vaux and passed many magnificent pieces of architecture inside the city. Since we were not able to visit the Fort de Douaumont due to renovation, the Ossuary de Douaumont was by far the most significant memorial we saw that day. Before us were thousands of graves, both French and German. Behind us were the countless bones of unidentified soldiers from the battle of Verdun. With the misting rain and the quiet emptiness of the memorial grounds, the solemnity was overwhelming. I don’t think many people ever really feel comfortable when standing near or in a cemetery such as this, but the Ossuary, which housed the remains of the unknown soldiers, starkly juxtaposed the seemingly endless rows of grave markers. The building was designed to be the handle of a sword with the blade in the ground symbolizing eternal peace. I couldn’t imagine a better image to have when leaving Verdun.

With our arrival in Brussels also arrived a new tone for the rest of the trip: professional yet light-hearted. I was ecstatic to finally be in a different country (I don’t count Kehl, Germany since you can reach it by public transportation from the Château!), especially one I had never been to before. Belgium was unique, yet familiar all at the same time with its distinctive French influence and vibrant nightlife that seems to accompany all of Europe.

We arrived late Sunday night, giving us enough time to get our bearings of the main city square and find a place for dinner. It took little convincing for some of us to continue our first night in Brussels by venturing to find a bar called Delirium, known for their extensive list of Belgian beers and over 3,000 bottled beers. Not easy to find, as the bar was tucked away in an alley, but full of life, character, and American music, the place reminded all of us a little of home. Given that we only had until Tuesday in Brussels before the CEPA organized trip was over, we found a booth, grabbed some beer, and talked until I was struggling to keep my eyes open as the length of the day was finally taking a toll on me. While we were calling it a night, it’s as if Delirium knew we’d be back.

As Monday rolled around, that meant our first full day in Brussels and our first of several planned excursions. The European Commission was first on the list. Since arriving in Strasbourg, we have visited every single European Union institution possible, plus some, yet none of us are close to being experts on the function of the European Union. It’s reassuring to know that not many Europeans are even very clear on the dynamic of the European Commission, Parliament, and Council, etc. Along with visiting every institution in the city, we have heard employees from every institution try to explain the same thing, with particular focus to the institution at hand. Our visit to the European Commission, to our pleasant surprise, was different from the rest. First off, they gave us free stuff and who could be unhappy about that? More importantly, our speaker was organized, coherent, and truly engaging. As one event ends, another begins and off to the Parlamentarium we went. Serving the purpose of educating the public about the role of the European Union institutions, it was incredibly informative. However, as my post-lunch fatigue began to hit me and I neared a mental wall from information overload, even the interactive screens and Parliament seating game couldn’t keep my attention much longer. It was time to return outside to the crisp and bright winter day and the rest of Brussels that awaited me to explore.

In the time spent between the end of our organized excursions for the day and our group dinner, I had the opportunity to explore some of Brussels with a few friends. I’m most thankful for the opportunities I’ve had in every city I’ve visited to find places off the beaten path. In the hours before dinner, we caught glimpses of the Royal Palace from outside the gate, meandered through a busy but gorgeous city center, and strolled through a quiet and quaint garden situated in the perfect spot to gaze down at the heart of Brussels’ bustling streets. The best part of having time to kill in Brussels might be the plethora of chocolate shops on every street, willing to offer each newcomer a sample. It’s safe to say we had our fair share of sweets before dinner. Even still, it wasn’t long before my stomach was growling again, and I was soon counting down the minutes until our group dinner where I had a salad, steak, potatoes, and chocolate mousse calling my name. After a fabulous meal, we made the most of our last night as a group and took the tram to the outskirts of the city to see The Atomium, a museum in the shape of an atom enlarged 165 billion times. The structure was originally made for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair and remains a magnificent piece of architecture to this day.

Tuesday was our final day in Brussels as a group, which meant two more scheduled visits. The morning began with a trip to the U.S. Mission to the European Union. This trip was interesting simply because I don’t think anyone in the program knew it existed. We were briefed by a political and economic advisor who both had three to five years of foreign service experience before being stationed in Brussels to work at the U.S. Mission. Our session was combined with students from a program in Sweden, and it was equally as interesting to hear their perspectives on what is taking place in the E.U. as it was to hear from U.S. State Department employees about work they are conducting and the policy stances of the U.S. in relation to the European Union. After a frantic couple of hours trying to get lunch, find the bus, and drive to our next destination, we finally arrived at SHAPE, which stands for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. I have to admit that I was probably more excited about this visit than any normal human being would be, but when you have a passion for security studies like I do, it was difficult to hide my enthusiasm. SHAPE is the headquarters for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Allied Command Operations in Mons, Belgium. I think too often people forget all of the services that organizations such as NATO provide because it is initially associated with military operations in response to attacks and during times of war. While at SHAPE I gained in-depth knowledge as to the other types of operations that NATO conducts, such as training and advising, air policing, and peace-enforcement. I was sitting on the edge of my seat the entire time, soaking in as much information possible, and delighted to find out that NATO and SHAPE offer internships to students and have partnerships with American universities for advisement purposes. I left SHAPE on Tuesday with new career possibilities and new goals to try to achieve.

The EU Studies trip to Brussels, Belgium consisted of both relaxation and once in a lifetime experiences. I ate a lot of good food, had my fair share of Belgian chocolates and craft beer, and strengthened friendships that are sure to last longer than this semester. If it wasn’t for CEPA, I wouldn’t have made it to Brussels. If I didn’t travel to Brussels, I would have missed out on a lot.